On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Docket No. L-19-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lintner, Sabatino and Alvarez.
Plaintiff, Jacob Watters, appeals from a jury verdict entered in favor of defendants, Mansfield Township Police Sergeant Robert Emery (defendant), and Mansfield Township (the Township), finding defendant did not unreasonably seize him or use excessive force during a motor vehicle stop in which plaintiff, who was a passenger, was handcuffed at gunpoint. Defendant and the Township cross-appeal the trial court's rulings that proof of plaintiff's alcohol consumption on the night in question was inadmissible, and that permitted plaintiff's medical expert to testify as to the permanent nature of plaintiff's injures. We affirm.
At around 10 p.m. on July 7, 2004, plaintiff accompanied his friend, Edward Behre, as Behre checked on several hay wagons left in farm fields which Behre's father rented from the Township. Both men were drinking. Plaintiff's family also farms in the area. As Behre headed out of the fields towards the St. Theodore's Church parking lot in order to enter the roadway, he saw a patrol car and a second vehicle blocking access to the lot. Behre turned around and drove back into the fields.
The patrol officer, who saw the vehicle approach and turn around, sent out a radio transmission regarding the truck's movements and its approximate location. He reported that the vehicle made the turn and left the area at a high rate of speed, presumably after spotting the patrol car. Defendant responded to the call.
Minutes later, defendant saw Behre's truck traveling back towards the church parking lot. He immediately gave chase and when he caught up with the vehicle, he activated his overhead lights. Defendant's patrol vehicle was equipped with a fully functional mobile vision camera system. Unfortunately, the camera was not turned on. As a result, the critical events of the evening were not recorded. According to defendant, within two- to three-tenths of a mile, according to plaintiff, within seconds, Behre came to a stop. Defendant radioed in the license plate information, and stepped out of his patrol car with his gun drawn.
Defendant told Behre to turn off the truck engine and throw the keys out of the truck. Defendant opened the driver's side door, and ordered Behre to get out of the truck with his hands up in the air. Defendant grabbed Behre's right arm and forced him down on the ground. He holstered his weapon, cuffed Behre while he was lying on the road, and then drew his gun again. Defendant walked across the front of the truck to the passenger side of the cab and ordered the plaintiff to get out. He walked plaintiff to the front of the truck and forced him onto the ground. Defendant sat plaintiff on the ground and cuffed his hands in front. Defendant acknowledges that while he was removing the men from the car he was loud and used profanity.
Shortly thereafter, the patrol officer arrived on the scene. Once both men were cuffed, defendant searched the cab. As the search was being conducted, the patrol officer administered a field sobriety test to Behre. Finding nothing that implicated plaintiff in any wrongdoing, his cuffs were removed. He sat waiting in the back of a patrol car until Behre's truck could be towed. Although plaintiff was allowed to use his cell phone to call his father, he was told he would not be released at the location of the stop at the farm fields, nor would his father be allowed to come and pick him up there. Plaintiff's father was waiting at the police station when they arrived, and plaintiff immediately left with him.
As a result of the night's events, plaintiff's knee was injured, requiring surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus. Plaintiff's expert opined that "the loss of meniscal tissue [was] a permanent injury" from which plaintiff could suffer medical problems in the future. Defendant's expert disagreed, testifying that given plaintiff's young age, there was a "low probability" that he would ever suffer additional problems.
The Township's Chief of Police testified at trial that the township police protocol requires an objective fear before an officer may un-holster his weapon. These protocols derive from guidelines issued by the State Attorney General's Office. The Police Chief said that because defendant believed himself to be engaged in a high risk felony stop, and was therefore justified in un-holstering his weapon, he took no administrative action against defendant. He did not conduct any investigation, as he believed defendant's behavior was proper. The Police Chief did acknowledge that defendant should have remained in his vehicle until backup arrived.
Defendants produced an expert in police procedures who also testified at trial. He concurred with the Police Chief that although defendant's removal of his weapon from his holster was proper, he should not have left the safety of his vehicle until backup arrived. Defendants' expert said that defendant's stop of the vehicle and his conduct thereafter fell within the guidelines developed for use by police statewide. He characterized defendant's conduct as reasonable.
In the first count, plaintiff's complaint sought damages for the alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures and the use of excessive force pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. The second count alleged a violation of plaintiff's civil rights as guaranteed by the State Constitution pursuant to the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2. The third count sought damages under common law theories of false imprisonment, false arrest, and assault and battery. The fourth and final count sought damages for "spoliation" of evidence, namely, the claimed destruction of the videotape in defendant's patrol car that should have recorded the events of the night in question. The answer filed by defendant and the township denied liability and asserted absolute or qualified immunity.
Plaintiff's points on appeal are as follows:
PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR DIRECTED VERDICT AT THE CLOSE OF THE EVIDENCE SHOULD HAVE BEEN GRANTED.
THE JURY VERDICT WAS A CLEAR MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE.
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED WHEN MAKING ERRONEOUS "AD LIBS" WHILE READING THE JURY CHARGE TO THE JURY.
IT WAS ERROR FOR THE COURT TO REFUSE TO DEFINE "SEIZURE" WHEN REQUESTED BY THE JURY DURING DELIBERATIONS. THE FAILURE TO DEFINE "SEIZURE" EXACERBATED THE CONFUSION CAUSED BY THE TRIAL ...